So, a little over a month in to the campaign, one has to wonder what’s in the water Milwaukee are brewing with, Arizona seem snakebit and Detroit, predictably are walking away with their division. No surprise Toronto is below .500, surprising however that its been the bullpen largely letting the Jays down and moreover, that every team in the AL East has a negative run differential thus far. Maybe our hallowed division isn’t the powerhouse we all thought it. My newest “power rankings” , with the odds of winning it all this year:
1. Detroit 7:1
2. Boston 7:1
3. Atlanta 7:1
4. St Louis 8:1
5. Texas 10:1
6. Washington 11:1
7. Oakland 13:1
8. NY Yankees 13:1
9. LA Dodgers 13:1
10. San Francisco 15:1
11. Cincinnati 30:1
12. Milwaukee 40:1
13. Tampa Bay 50:1
14. LA Angels 50:1
15. Colorado 60:1
16. Pittsburgh 60:1
17. Kansas City 100:1
18. Toronto 100:1
19. Baltimore 125:1
20. Cleveland 150:1
21. Philadelphia 200:1
22. Miami 200:1
23. NY Mets 200:1
24. Chicago WS 200:1
25. San Diego 200:1
26. Seattle 200:1
27. Chicago C 250:1
28. Arizona 250:1
29. Minnesota 250:1
30. Houston 250:1
I like Toronto’s odds a little better than I did during spring training, but still won’t be betting the farm ON the Jays farm being able to sure up the team enough to make a run for it; Milwaukee and Seattle’s fortunes have risen the most but it’s difficult to take the brew crew for real, particularly with Ryan Braun now out with the famous “oblique strain”. What could Toronto realistically do to be better than long-shots to be anything other than also rans? We’ll look at that soon…
So with the teams assessed and the season a few games in, let’s look at the crystal baseball for the regular season’s end and beyond…
Batting champion: Machado (Bal), M Cabrera (Det), Ellsbury (Bos)
Home runs: Bautista (Tor), Fielder (Tex), M Cabrera (Det)
RBI: Beltre (Tex), Ortiz (Bos), Encarnacion (Tor)
SB: Ellsbury (NY), Davis (Det), Rios(Tex)
OPS: M Cabrera (Det), Bautista (Tor), Machado (Bal)
Wins : Darvish (Tex), Verlander (Det), Shields (KC)
ERA: Verlander (Det), Hernandez (Sea), Shields (KC)
Saves: Nathan (Det), Uehara (Bos), Holland (KC)
MVP: Trout (LAA)* I rather think he’ll win it just for showing up more or less regardless of how good his season may be
M Cabrera (Det), Ellsbury (NY)
Cy Young: Darvish (Tex), Verlander (Det), Shields (KC)
rookie of year: Walker (Sea), Odorizzi (TB), Correa (Hou)
Manager of year: Farrell (Bos), Maddon (TB), Washington (Tex)
AL East : Boston
AL Central: Detroit
AL West: Texas
Wild cards: New York, Seattle
Seattle over NY for wild card
Texas over Detroit
Boston over Seattle
AL champion: Boston over Texas (alas. I think their experience and deeper starting rotation will prevail over the better hitting of Texas)
and briefly, over in the National League
BATTING CHAMPION: Freeman (Atl)
HOME RUNS: Stanton (Mia)
RBI: Gonzalez (Col)
SB: Hamilton (Cin)* I”m going to guess about 66
OPS: Votto (Cin)
WINS: Wainwright (STL)
ERA: Fernandez (Mia)
SAVES: Kimbrel (Atl)
MVP: Freeman (Atl)
CY YOUNG: Wainwright (STL)
ROOKIE: Hamilton (Cin)
NL EAST: Washington
NL CENTRAL: St Louis
NL WEST: Los Angeles
WILD CARDS: Cincinnati, San Francisco
San Francisco over Cincinnati for Wild Card
St Louis over Los Angeles
Washington over San francisco
NL CHAMPION: St Louis over Washington (too much experience and starting pitching in STL for young Nats to overcome)
And now perhaps the most evenly-balanced (or 4/5 balanced) division in the AL, the West.
Houston- Harris County fans are hoping there’s nowhere to go but up now after the Astros lost a club record 111 games last year and (given the Pirates fab 2013) are now co-holders of the longest streak of losing seasons in baseball. They and the Mets are sitting at 5 and counting, and while the Astros are nowhere near as pathetic as last year’s edition, count on their streak hitting 6. This team is young and still very much in a rebuilding phase, but there are signs of life and reasons for patient optimism …Jason Castro, one of the better all-round catchers in the game (.835 OPS last year was better than Wieters or Pierzynski for example), little Jose Altuve (listed at a mere 5’5”) has all the tools to be a star 2B and a fan fave for years to come with his enthusiasm and deceptive speed, Jarred Cosart might have been the second best rookie pitcher in all of baseball last year, despite winning only 1 of 10 starts (his ERA of 1.95 dazzled despite curiously walking more than he struck out). And while not exactly loading up, the management at least opened the purse strings a wee bit to bring in a decent veteran starter (Scott Feldman, who’ll be hard-pressed to match his dozen wins of last year here) and outfielder (Dexter Fowler,just one season removed from a .300 campaign). That said, there are still an awful lot of holes in the lineup and will doubtless be an express shuttle between Houston and Oklahoma as various kids get call-ups from the minors. Not a good team, but not as bad as last year…and as the Yankees are finding out, a team that can be pesky and problematic from time to time. Prediction – 62 wins, fifth place
Los Angeles Anaheim- only the Blue Jays rivaled the Angels level of disappointment to fans in ’13. Like Toronto, they decided that was a mere aberration and staying the course was the best plan, doing little to change the team in the off-season. And like the Jays, if the halos stay healthy and get a return to form from all their big names, they can contend. Don’t count on it however. Albert Pujols’ foot is apparently healthy and he’s looking better than he did most of last season, but at 34 don’t look for him to return to his prime. His runs, walks , homers and average have all declined four years in a row, at best look for him to come close to his average numbers for the past three years (.283, 32 doubles, 28 hr, 89 rbi) as opposed to his 2007-09 torrid stats (.337, 42 doubles, 39 hr, 118 rbi). Josh Hamilton is only a year younger, and physically probably more worn. He planned to gain weight to help his power return this year but as Sporting News put it “it might help even more if he stops indulging on a steady diet of bad pitches.” Granted he finished better than he started last year, so perhaps he’ll up his .250 average and .739 OPS but don’t look for it to be by much. Howie Kendrick gets lost in the hype of the aging and baby superstars on the team but is quietly as good a second baseman as there is , perhaps save for divisional rival Cano. Mike Trout– baseball wants ever-so-badly to make him this game’s Wayne Gretzky, but I”m not sold yet. That is NOT to say I don’t recognize his talent and ability- he is a great young player– but just that I don’t yet agree he’s the best in the game now, let alone one of the few all-time greats most critics now rank him as. If he hits .320 with 25 homers , drives in 90 and steals 25 again, I’ll be impressed and the Valley fans should be ecstatic. Pitching was a weakness last year, little has changed there. CJ Wilson is the real deal, Jered Weaver was, and the rest of the rotation is shaky at best. Prediction – 81wins, fourth
Oakland- time for “Moneyball 2” perhaps. Billy Beane’s ability to make the most of second-rate ingredients continues to work and amaze. He’ll really need to pull a rabbit out of the hat to continue their streak this year however. For the first time in 8 years they have no rookies on the roster and with their two best returning pitchers (AJ Griffin and Jarrod Parker) both on the DL, Parker out for the year, it’s doubtful they will contend again. Scott Kazmir had a good spring and took a shutout into the 8th in his first start this year, so the 30 year old restoration project may prove and adequate replacement for ageless Bartolo Colon. Craig Gentry is a nice addition to an already strong OF. Crisp, Cespedes and Reddick should provide a good number of runs again but the rest of the lineup may not be upto the task of propping up iffy pitching. Prediction – 85 wins, third.
Seattle- the Mariners made a splash in the off-season landing a big fish… but will the Nor’westers sink or swim? Ok, enough of the watery alusions but the point is obvious- will Robinson Cano be enough to turn around the fortunes of a team that’s struggled mightily in the past four seasons? Regardless of the long-term ramifications of giving a 31 year-old middle infielder a ten year megadeal, Cano will have an impact now for the team and the fans confidence in it. Yet other mega-contracts down the coast in the West haven’t panned out too well. Cano may not be the next Josh Hamilton, but neither do I expect him to be the M’s first MVP in a bakers dozen of years. He won’t have the big bats around him to protect and his sniping about not being respected in NYC and desire to hang out with celebrities more than work out make me doubt he has the maturity to single-handedly carry a club. Still, he should be an upgrade over Nick Franklin, hit at least .280 and drive in 80+ and put butts in the seats at Safeco. In the Cano-bration, the acquisition of Corey Hart was missed by many, but he should also add to the somewhat questionable Mariner’s offense. Michael Saunders is one to watch- despite his .236 average and rate of striking out almost 30% of the time last year, he always seemed to be in the middle of things when Seattle was rolling.
Mariners pitching is decent enough of course, with King Felix should be coming into his prime at age 28 (last year his K:BB ratio was best of his career) and once Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are activated off the DL (probably at month’s end), the rotation will be formidable. Fernando Rodney was reborn in Tampa, and his addition to sidearmer Danny Farquhar gives them a decent late inning bullpen to hold the leads passed them. Not a spectacular team, but the best Washington state fans have had to cheer on for a number of years. Prediction – 87 wins, second.
Texas- no team has done more with less to show for it over the past three years than the Rangers, my step- team if you will (given my engagement to a diehard R’s fan). Many teams would have axed the manager after the soul-deadening September they had last year, but this is not the Texas way. And with an average of 92 wins a year over the past four, who’s to argue?
Jon Daniels, apparently at odds with departed legend Nolan Ryan, did decide to make some big changes nonetheless and focussing on the team’s diminishing offense over the past couple of seasons, opened the wallets up in a big way for free agent Shin-Soo Choo and got a big bat (something a bit lacking last year after Josh Hamilton moved along) in Prince Fielder . Choo is a quintessentially smart and patient hitter who should set the plate for the bigger bats regularly. Last year Choo was second in the NL in walks, runs and on base percentage and won the “Heart and Hustle Award” given out by the Reds; he’d been in the top 10 in OBP thrice with Cleveland before. His walk-off walk last night should be indicative of the type of player Texas fans will get to love this season. Fielder may not be the home run threat he once was, but will still be an upgrade at first and should hit at very least 30 and help Adrian Beltre get a few more good pitches to swing at. And while Manny Machado is the future in terms of AL third baggers, Beltre, if fully-healthy and agile again after leg problems last year, is the here and now, well deserving his four Gold Gloves. Even though it’s remarkably Adrian’s 17th big league season , don’t expect any drop -off from his Texas averages of .312, 33 homers, 100 rbis.
We Toronto fans never doubted Alex Rios’ physical capability; it was his mentality, effort and maturity that got called into quesiton. At 33 he seems to have finally grown up and the Rios of today is little like the seemingly disinterested Jay of five or six years back, so don’t be surprised to see him have a break-out year. With his speed and power he could potentially hit .300 with 30 homers and 30 steals and keep any baserunner who’s hit to right field honest.
The downsides of the everyday lineup are more a result of injury than lack of talent. Geovany Soto was deemed an adequate backstop, apparently pitchers preferred him to feisty AJ Pierzynski last season, but he wrecked his knee in spring training leaving questionable off-season signing JP Arencibia back there most of the time for the first half. I’ve outlined some of the problems with Arencibia here before, and all Toronto fans are only too aware of his defensive lackings. Still, in a new environment with new teammates and coaches, perhaps he can rebound from his truly dreadful 2013 (lowest batting average and on base percentage of any regular player in the league, most passed balls and throwing errors of any catcher and so on)and develop into something of the star Toronto had once imagined him to be. He did after all, win a batting title in AAA.
Likewise, the Rangers took a risk and a bit of a publicity hit by trading away longtime second baseman Ian Kinsler,but they figured they had second well-covered with young phenom Jurickson Profar, last year’s top prospect who spent too much time on the bench, or in spot assignments out of position last season. Unfortunately Profar also got injured in spring and is on the shelf for at least half the year, meaning second is left to the rather ordinary Donnie Murphy or Josh Wilson.
Rangers pitching was quietly effective last season,particularly the bullpen,so it was left somewhat unchanged, which may end up being a bit of a mistake given their early injuries. While Yu Darvish is due back this weekend from a sore neck that made him miss the opening series, last year’s #2 Derek Holland is out til the heat of July if not longer due to his broken leg- which might effect his effectiveness when he returns every bit as much as an arm injury would. Matt Harrison is expected to play a big role this season and having anything resembling the big lefty of 2012 (18 wins, 3.29 ERA) would be a huge boost , however, Harrison logged only 18 innings last year in total and is out with a bad back currently. Robbie Ross looks like a better bet to make the jump from the ‘pen to the starting 5 than season opener Tanner Scheppers; a good start from veteran Joe Saunders this weekend coupled with Yu’s return should place Scheppers back in the bullpen where he was very solid in ’13.
Joe Nathan will be missed in the bullpen, but Joakim Soria is now two years removed from Tommy John surgery and should do just fine in closing games. There are holes in the pitching staff, but if Yu does what most expect, and continues to mature and adapt to North American ball, he could easily win 20 and the Rangers with better hitting than last year’s version, should take back the title. Prediction –
89 wins, first.
The Central has long been rather the red-headed stepchild of the American League, not as good as or watched as the siblings around it. That might be changing, but not to any great extent, or quickly.
Chicago last year were the only AL team to not score at least 600 runs. But to even out the equation, they didn’t pitch or field well either. No big surprise they ended up in last place for the first time since the 80s. Don’t look for any big changes this season, although they may escape the basement. The big change will be highly-touted Cuban Jose Abreu taking over at first from Paul Konerko, the best Chicago player of the post-Frank Thomas era. Abreu has power and raw skill, but may not come close to the impact of a Konerko in his prime, or of his own 2013 season in the Mexican League where he hit .316 with 60 ribbies in fewer than 300 at bats. Adam Eaton is a nice addition, Adam Dunn should do what he does- hit three dozen or so dingers and strikeout most of the rest of the time, and in Chris Sale they at least have one of the best and emergent young pitchers in the game. On a winning team, he’d be a household name and good bet for a Cy Young soon. With the Sox, he’ll have to be content with merely getting a winning record this year. Prediction– 67 wins, 4th place.
Cleveland started to distance themselves from their Chief Wahoo logo last season, largely to appease Native protesters, but perhaps a little as well to distance themselves from the decade or so of lacklustre teams that had worn the Chief on their hats. The Indians surprised many in ’13, so it’s not surprising that they are back relatively untouched. The team seemed to have chemistry galore last year and Terry Francona and his crew should ensure that continues which is worth a win or five over the season. Danny Salazar dazzled in his debut against the Jays last year; he’ll probably end the year as the ace of northern Ohio, though Justin Masterson is no slouch either. Yan gomes is quickly erasing the adjective “first Brazilian player” and simply being acknowledged as an above-average catcher, free agent David Murphy likes his new ballpark…but there’s still not enough here, nor a good enough replacement for Jimenez and Kazmir to expect a repeat of ’13. Prediction– 82 wins, third
Detroit- the Tigers know the key to success, like any good real estate agent does: “Location, location, location”. Detroit aren’t close to the best team in baseball, but they are the class of this division and thus get darn near a free pass to the playoffs. Having to not battle for that should make them very nearly the faves to win the World Series this year. Giving up Prince Fielder was a huge risk of course, but a team that hit .283 last year and was second in runs scored can afford to lose a run or two. Rajai Davis, in from Toronto, will bolster the offense with his speed (45 steals in 108 games last year) and Ian Kinsler, if he quickly matures and focuses on his game rather than his anger at Texas, will be a good presence on base for Miggy to drive in. Speaking of, don’t look for another triple crown for Cabrera…but don’t expect him to slump like others (not mentioning any Anaheim stars for example…) did after receiving monster contracts. I’d be surprised if he hits less than .310 or clips under three dozen homers. Letting Doug Fister go may go down as a major blunder, but Justin Verlander (expect a bit of a resurgent year from him), Anibel Sanchez and disgruntled Max Scherzer – now pitching for a free agent megadeal- should provide pitching enough for the tabbys to cruise to the division title for the fourth year in a row. Prediction– 95 wins, first
Kansas City- the Royals gained 14 wins last year, bested only by Boston and Cleveland in the AL. Another 14 tacked on could make them the kings of the world– but isn’t likely. Nonetheless, they are a team heading the right direction. Sal Perez is quickly establishing himself as the best catcher in the league (at the plate, .292, 21 homers, behind it 137 games, second best and fewest passed balls of any catcher with triple digit games) and could come to be recognized as a legitimate superstar this year. Expect Eric Hosmer’s power to return this year and if Mike Moustakas ever develops into the star he was expected to be KC should score runs by the bushel. James Shields is dominant – he matched his career best 34 starts last year and is 44-31, 3.28 over the past three years- and will likely get even better in his year leading upto a big free agency payoff. However, Jason Vargas is no Shields,nor even an Ervin Santana (whom he replaces) so seeing him as the #2 guy in the rotation makes me think this team still has a ways to go to cause the Tigers to break out in a sweat. Prediction– 86 wins, second.
Minnesota- the Twins had never gone three years without winning 70 before last year. Needless to say, this year they have a chance to extend their futility streak. The league’s only starting rotation to sport an ERA of over 5 last season is only marginally improved with the addition of Phil Hughes, meaning there’s not much for the Twins to pitch to the fan base in way of hope for 2014. Interesting to watch will be Joe Mauer’s transition to first base; on the plus side he should stay healthier and play more , on the downside, his usual .870 OPS and 8 home runs (averaged over the past 4 seasons) make him a star catcher but a mediocre at best first bagger. Down the road things look brighter- of Byron Buxton and IF Miguel Sano are two of the best prospects in all of baseball but both are at least a year removed from making the bigs. Prediction – 66 wins, fifth.
Next we’ll go to the increasingly evenly-matched AL West.
As discussed previously, if the starting lineup remains moderately healthy, the Jays could be an offensive powerhouse. Alas, they will have to be all that and more, given the state of their pitching. In particular, the starting rotation, which last year had a next-to-worst 4.81 ERA…and is returning largely unchanged in ’14. A rather massively disappointing fact for the diehard to chew on given the November speeches of Alex Anthopoulos and Co.
Mind you, a realistic assessment of the situation must recognize that drastically improving the rotation would have been easier said than done. Anytime “Matt Garza” and “best available arm” is used in the same paragraph,let alone sentence, you know free agent pickings were going to be Nicole Ritchie-slim. One can’t fault the Jays for not offering a $14M qualifying offer to Josh Johnson after his two-win campaign of last year, and even deep-pocketed Rogers Communications may have had difficulty outbidding the Yankees for the services of Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka, not to mention convincing him of the desirability of pitching for Toronto. Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo could have made decent adds, and by the time they were gone and Ervin Santana had come down to earth (realizing he wasn’t Cliff Lee or Clay Kershaw and was thus not going to be paid like them) the Jays got serious a few days too late. Had the Braves not lost two starters in two days in spring training, they (Atlanta) would have likely not entered the fray for his services and Santana could well be a Jay. Not that Santana was going to single-handedly take them to the promised land anyway, but another 200-inning, 11 or 12 win pitcher would make them look at least competitive.
As it stands, the rotation looks like “Dickey and Buehrle and hope lots of rain ends the series early”. RA Dickey finished the season strong last year and has good velocity on his knuckler (as knuckleballs go) this spring compared to last. He may not return to Cy Young form but should easily match or perhaps better his 14 wins and , perhaps more importantly, 224 innings of last year.Not to mention screw batters’ timing up for a day or so after seeing his array of slowballs.
Mark Buehrle may not be the best pitcher out there but certainly is the most reliable. That is not merely this scribe’s opinion, but essentially a fact… no other pitcher out there has won in the double digits for the past 13 straight seasons, nor gone over 400 straight starts without missing a game. He has a good shot of joining the relatively elite club of 200-game winners this season, needing 14 more. Given his strong spring, and fact that he’ll be working with a better defensive catcher this year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do that and add two or three more for good measure, and also slog through 220 innings.
The problem of course is that that tandem will only account for 40% of the games. As of today, the remainder of the rotation is set as Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison. JA Happ, originally seen as the #3 guy, is now on the DL with a bad back which one only hopes was the reason he managed to hurl only 7 innings in four spring starts and had an ERA that masqueraded as the Dunedin zip code.
Morrow of course, is a good bet to one day throw a no-hitter. When he’s “on” he’s absolutely dominant with a great heater and decent slider. Alas, he’s not “on” all that often. He is, in effect, the poor man’s (or poor doctor’s) Ubaldo Jimenez– a guy with fantastic “stuff” who unfortunately seldom puts it together for more than a few games at a time. Unlike Jimenez though, Morrow also seems injury-prone. In 2012-13,he started 31 games and lobbed 179 innings– a not bad one year total,as a 2 year tally though a source of major anxiety for the club. His walk:strikeout ratio has declined in the past three years and this spring he’s toting a 9+ ERA . The Toronto Sun reports that in his 5 outings he’s “been efficient in none of them”.
McGowan, on the other hand has been pitching well, and is a “feel-good” story. No one doubts McGowan’s effort, having overcome three separate shoulder surgeries, knee surgery and an oblique injury that cut short his 2013 season. There’s plenty of reason to doubt his physical ability however, given his history and fact that since 2009 he’s only pitched 46 innings in the bigs – and 47 more in the minors. 93 innings over 5 years, and this year the Blue Jays expect him to double that in just one year. My sense tells me that if you bet “over-under” on games started by Dustin this year, 10 would count as an “over”. Sadly too, time has perhaps distorted many a memory of the 32 year old– even in his best year, 2007, he was only 12-10 with a 4.08 ERA over 169 innings—not bad but no Cy Young.
Drew Hutchison is a question mark, having being rushed to the majors in 2012 and getting into a decent groove for about 4 games before being lost to the omnipresent “Tommy John Surgery”. He’s looked sharp this spring, and could be a decent #5 but… only 5 big league wins and 270 innings logged in the minors makes me consider Drew less than a surefire winner.
Today Toronto announced that back-up possibilities Esmil Rogers (at times good last season , at times awful), Todd Redmond and Jeremy Jeffress all will be with the big club, in the bullpen to start the season. There will be danger of running out of starters this year, but then again actual number of arms available wasn’t the shortcoming of the 2013 edition. Moreover, with these three in the pen, rather than in the minors logging innings (due to lack of options more than lack of relievers in Toronto), they’ll be limited to short outings and take longer to get into shape as a starter when (not if) the need arises.
Under-rated Casey Janssen only pitched his first game of the spring on March 24, but should be good to go early in April if not right off and with Sergio Santos, Aaron Loup, Steve Delebar, Brett Cecil around as well, the bullpen should continue to be a strength. This year’s Delebar could be John Stilson, who came out of nowhere – or New Hampshire- to be brilliant this spring, only allowing his first run on march 25.Last year he had a 6-2 record and nifty 2.09 ERA in a part-season with AAA Buffalo .
The Jays will score a lot of runs this year, alas they’ll also allow a lot. Geography has dealt the team a cruel hand of late; were Toronto to be dropped in, say Alberta, this team could compete. But here in the east, in baseball’s toughest division, everything will have to go right for them to even tread water at .500. I’d like to be optimistic, but the glass of cold water is this– Toronto will play 120 games this season against teams that had winning records last season. Detroit, by comparison, has 92 and the Texas Rangers, only 65.
The 2014 Blue Jays won’t be a bad team. However, it’s not likely that you’ll know that looking at the standings.
Next– we’ll look at the rest of the division.
Alex Anthopolous and by extension, the Blue Jays organization are nothing if not optimists. Their reasoning for expecting much greater results from essentially the same roster as last year are based on the assumptions that they can avoid the major injuries that plagued the team in ’13 and that players returning from injury will be back upto speed. And, indeed, if that happens to be the case, the 2014 Blue Jays could make some noise. But that is also a whole lot of “ifs”.
If healthy- note the ‘if”- this team should score runs. Lots of them. Dioner Navarro, the new #1 catcher, should easily outpace JP Arencibia’s insipid .194 average and .592 OPS, even if he tires out and lags behind his .300 average over 89 games with the Cubs last year. The front end of the lineup could be a run-scoring machine, given that it will be fronted by the men who had the highest batting averages in the NL in 2011 and 2012 (Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera respectively) followed by two bona fide 40 home run threats in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The monkey wrench in there is that all 4 suffered significant injuries last season and already Jose Reyes is having difficulty with his hamstring. If (there’s that word again) Reyes is ok and stays more or less in good condition through the long year on bad turf, he should be in scoring position for the big bats a lot, needless to say.
Cabrera has benefited from new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer or from feeling better after back surgery last year, or perhaps both , and is hitting up a storm this spring. In the final week of spring training, he looks like a new man compared to the slow, weak-hitting version Toronto fans endured last season, and is clipping along with a .429 average and nine doubles. There is hope to think that last year was the aberration. After all, over the 2011-12 seasons Melky hit .325 with a slugging pct of almost .500. Anything remotely close to that this year, hitting behind Reyes, could easily put both Joey Bats and EE over the century mark for RBIs by the time Labor Day rolls around.
Bautista is seemingly in good health and spirits this spring and if he manages to play past mid-August for the first time since 2011, should be a contender for the home run title again. Even over the past two injury-marred campaigns he’s tallied 55 home runs, and averaged at least a homer per 16 AB, numbers any team would happily put up with, even if at the expense of a few silly temper tantrums along the way. If JB stays healthy, I have a sense another 50 home run year may be on its way and his strong arm could garner a Gold Glove for him as well. Edwin Encarnacion often goes unnoticed it seems, despite knocking 78 balls out of the park over the past two years. Reports are that his wrist is good again and hitting in this lineup, another 35 dinger,100 ribbie year is easily doable.
Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind are both hitting well this spring, and could be added offensive weapons. I’m undecided on Lawrie’s potential, but used judiciously, I think Lind could hit .300 and near 30 HR, even if not matching his fabulous 2009 season.
Colby Rasmus , if not hitting up a storm , is at least hitting up a drizzle and seems to have matured little by little through his time here , so it’s entirely possible he could hit .275 or so and perhaps drive in 80. That leaves only second baseman Ryan Goins, who is struggling this spring and didn’t look altogether comfortable at the plate in his debut last summer, despite an OK .252 average. This year he’s below the Mendoza line , but his defence has been solid (Alex the Optimist suggests already he’s a Gold Glover in the making, something not altogether outrageous to those of us who watched him last year as he looked at ease even when adjusting to a new position– he’d played SS in the minors). If – yes, that word again- his weak bat is the biggest hole in the lineup, Jays fans will have reason to feel chipper and look forward to the playoffs.
My gut feeling is that Reyes hamstring will be a nagging problem well into the summer, and as we saw after his return last season, a slowed
Jose Reyes is no game changer but still an adequate infielder. A big year from any two of Bautista, Encarnacion and Lind should result in a pretty powerful hitting machine that could well produce a good few runs more than last year’s 712 (which ranked them 8th in the AL). Alas, even if they can do so,it may not be enough to move up in the standings given the pitching… which we’ll look at next.
In 2013 no team entered the season having done more to upgrade over the winter than the Blue Jays. In the 2013 regular season however, no team under-achieved more than the same Blue Jays. Despite landing three All-stars in one trade, a reigning Cy Young in another and upping the team payroll by something in the magnitude of $50 mil, the sadsack Jays managed to only upgrade their win total by one measly game- and actually sank in the standings due to the re-emergence of a powerful Red Sox team (much to the chagrin of Toronto fans who were more galled than most realize by the sights of a cheery, friendly John Farrell at the helm, something of the antonym of his demeanour in his Canadian tenure.) That is all ancient history now, as is GM Alex Anthopolous’ oft-repeated commentary last fall that all that was wrong with the team was lousy starting pitching (starting pitching he assembled one might note, although he seemed not to make the connection) . All that was needed to right the ship, he said time and time again, was to add one or better yet, two, quality starting pitchers over the off-season.
Now there’s no denying how bad the starting staff was last year- 29th out of 30 in fact. Even the horrendous Astros put together a more competent rotation than the Jays. After Buehrle and Dickey (who were both consistent innings-eater and acceptable although nowhere near having career years) it was something of a black hole. Highly touted Josh Johnson arrived from Miami and missed half the season with elbow ailments and when he did pitch, merely made Jays fan wish he would ache more often. Brandon Morrow was horrible and missed months with random arm pains. And so on. The assumption of the starters being bad was accurate but also missed the other shortcomings of the ’13 staff- too frequent injuries (by mid-August the entire ‘regular’ outfield was on the DL and would remain so more or less for the remainder of the year), a year of epic failure by one-time “superstar in waiting” JP Arencibia – his .227 on base percentage was lowest of any regular on any team in over 20 years, he led the league in passed balls and throwing errors and managed to start a war of words with the local sports media,- second basemen through most of the year had difficulty (to be kind) playing the position, let alone hitting, and a bullpen which, on the whole was good but which (probably due to over-use) slumped after the All Star break.
Clearly more than a few licks of paint were needed to make the House of the Jay presentable for 2014. This was more of a total overhaul fixer-upper, but the ever-upbeat Anthopolous insisted just one or two more starting pitchers would be just fine and dandy and give Ontario fans a shot at seeing October baseball at home for the first time in two decades.
Now opening day is only a week off and AA has managed to add, well not two,nor one but zero significant pitchers to the roster but remains positively upbeat. He’s consistently told the Canadian press and fanbase this spring that he considers the rotation to be much stronger than last year, despite the absence of new names and the departure of the under-achieving but high-ceilinged Johnson . (Who it might be added is already injured in his new home of San Diego).
Hope springs eternal, it is said, but one must wonder if for Blue Jays fans if the hope isn’t slowly going from one of a distant chance to return to the post-season to one of a hope of an even worse foul-up than last season which it is commonly assumed would bring to a close the Anthopolous chapter (and by extension all traces of the JP Ricciardi era) of baseball history here. For, it’s getting tougher and tougher to ignore that for all his charm and good press conferences, all Anthopolous has managed to do in his time at the helm is to drive them deeper into the depths of the American League basement.
…to be continued